South Korea’s newly elected president, Moon Jae-in, has suspended the deployment of an American missile defense system,
a potentially significant break with the United States on policy toward North Korea.
In comments to reporters, a senior official from the presidential Blue House in Seoul said on Wednesday that
the two launchers of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system that had been installed could remain
but that four launchers that had yet to be deployed would not be set up
until the administration completed an environmental assessment.
The missile defense system, known as THAAD, has been contentious in South Korea,
and has drawn sharp criticism from China, which views the system’s radar as a threat.
Beijing has taken retaliatory economic measures against Seoul,
including curtailing the flow of Chinese tourists and punishing South Korean companies in China.
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He has already signaled a softening stance toward North Korea by encouraging aid groups to visit the country,
although the North has rejected those offers since Seoul supported new United Nations sanctions.
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Analysts said that, as protesters demonstrated against the THAAD installation,
and South Korean businesses pressured the government to improve relations with China,
Moon may have decided that suspending the progress of the missile defense system was politically expedient.
“I think he is trying to find a diplomatic way to slow down the process to placate the business community and placate his political supporters,”
said Stephen R. Nagy, senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.
Moon may also have sensed that China was not going to back down.
When Lee Hae-chan, South Korea’s special presidential envoy, visited Beijing last month,
President Xi Jinping did not concede anything during a meeting they jointly oversaw.
China’s strategy is to stand firm in its objections to THAAD to force Moon to modify — or even eliminate —
a missile defense system that the Chinese suspect he does not like, either.
The defense system officially went into operation in late April on an abandoned golf course in Seongju, 135 miles southeast of Seoul,
when two of six launchers were installed.
US military officials have said that the system is already “operational and has the ability to intercept North Korean missiles.”
US & Defense Ministry Skirted Law To Expedite Installation Before Election
This week, Moon accused the Ministry of Defense of trying to dodge a full environmental assessment as required by the law.
According to the law, any military installation on a site of more than 330,000 square meters requires a full analysis of potential environmental and social effects.
The ministry had divided the site, at 700,000 square meters, into two parcels to expedite the installation.
Supporters of Moon said the president was simply working to ensure that the THAAD battery complied with the law.
“The previous administration wasn’t really clear and transparent about the review process, and basically this is a legal procedure,”
said Choi Jong-kun, a professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Choi said that the president was eager to follow the legal procedure,
given that he was elected after his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, was impeached and ousted after accusations of corruption.
“The previous government failed to defend the constitutionality of the legal process in many fields,” Choi said.
“So this president cannot repeat those same mistakes.” He added:
“Is he saying ‘no’ to the United States? No.
He is saying ‘yes’ to his constitutional responsibility.”
US military officials noted that the system became operational in April and
therefore could provide basic — and limited — defense in the event of a North Korean attack, even if the additional launchers were not deployed.
Pentagon officials noted that the missile defense deployment was the result of an agreement reached last year.
Trump Provides Precedent For Newly-Elected President To Reverse Policies
But they also acknowledged that,
given that President Trump has pulled out of international agreements reached by his predecessor, President Obama,
there is precedent for Moon’s move.
Opponents of Moon said the suspension was probably a first step toward rejecting the missile defense system altogether.
Oh Shin-hwan, a spokesman for the conservative-leaning Bareun Party, said in a statement that
because the environmental review would take more than a year,
“the government does not intend to deploy the remaining four launchers.”
“North Korean provocations are occurring almost every day,” the statement continued.
“And South Korea is saying that it will defend the country with half of the THAAD system.
It is in effect saying that the government will not take into consideration the safety of Korean citizens, United States service members and their families.”
Environmental Assessment May Take Up To A Year
Analysts said it was too early to determine the ultimate outcome of the assessment.
The early deployment “was rushed, so if the rush has been slowed down a bit, it’s not the end of the world,”
said Gordon Flake, the chief executive of the Perth-U.S. Asia Center at the University of Western Australia.
But, he added, Moon “has to be aware of a fundamentally changed strategic environment in the last several years in Northeast Asia.”
As North Korea rapidly develops the capability to launch missiles that could hit Japan and American bases in the region, Flake said,
“decisions that South Korea makes have regional and global implications.”